Three Brains Theory: Why Head, Heart and Gut Matter in Decision-Making
When it comes to making decisions, you might feel pulled between your head, heart and gut
Belynder Walia explores how balancing these 'three brains' can reduce anxiety and stress
If you are struggling with anxiety, find a therapist to support you here
Let’s take a look at the connection between your mind and body by exploring the concept of the three brains within you: the head, heart, and gut.
These three brains are crucial in helping you manage anxiety. By paying attention to the factors that influence your decision-making, you can make choices that align with your long-term goals, higher self, and the future you envision. When you listen to these three brains, you can ignore the messages that anxiety tries to impose on you and follow a path towards the reality you desire.
Before you can begin to process all of that, you need to understand the concept of the three brains – your cognitive, emotional, and digestive intelligence. This is fascinating and supported by scientific evidence.
The cognitive brain, located in the thinking part of your mind (neocortex), is responsible for processing information, making decisions, and engaging in logical thinking.
The emotional brain, in the region of your mind that handles emotions (limbic system), influences your social interactions and how you bond with others, particularly in situations where certain behaviours are essential for survival.
Finally, the gut brain, located in your gut (enteric nervous system), provides you with intuitive feelings, gut instincts, and the sensations associated with digestion.
Every day, your body’s nervous system picks up on social cues around you, even without you realising it. These cues are processed by a part of your brain called grey matter, which helps with information processing and decision-making (Purves et al., 2001). You can tap into your intuition by aligning your three brains—the head, heart, and gut—and make more accurate decisions. This connection between your brains also helps you manage anxiety, giving you control over your emotions and guiding your decision-making. Ultimately, it allows you to live a fulfilled and balanced life, free from anxiety and fear.
The concept of the three brains is based on human evolution. The gut brain, the oldest brain, helps us freeze in dangerous situations. The heart brain evolved next, allowing us to understand our own feelings and the emotions of others as social beings. The most recent and advanced thinking brain is responsible for logical thinking. It is located in the front part of your brain and is connected to a nerve called the vagus nerve (Porges, 1995).
The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in your body, regulates various bodily functions. It runs from your brainstem through your neck, chest, and abdomen, reaching different organs and body systems. The vagus nerve regulates heart rate, digestion, and other automatic bodily functions. It is also essential in facilitating communication between the brain and the body, carrying signals back and forth.
Each of the three brains processes different information and they constantly communicate with each other. Research shows that the heart and gut brain send more details to the head brain, influencing our decisions. By activating and optimising these three brains, we balance our nervous system, calming the mind and supporting the body.
These three brains affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. When balanced, you can make effective decisions, regulate your emotions, and maintain overall wellbeing. However, an imbalance can lead to negative emotions like anxiety, stress, and depression. Understanding how these three brains function and interact can help us reduce the impact of pressure and create a more enjoyable life. The head brain is responsible for cognitive processing, while the heart brain processes emotions and the gut brain deals with instincts and intuition.
To illustrate the power of the three-brains equilibrium (3BE), let’s look at a case example. One of my clients, let’s call her Sarah, came to me with a common problem she was struggling with anxiety.
She couldn’t seem to move on from a difficult breakup. Sarah had been single for some time, and the thought of dating again triggered her worry even more especially in regard to her public eating habits. Memories of her past relationship would surface, and negative thoughts about her gut health would consume her. However, Sarah was determined to take control of her negative emotions and find love again.
When we experience negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, or unhappiness, our brains can activate the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone produced and released by the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. Its primary role is to prepare the body for a response to potential threats or challenges. However, prolonged or frequent activation of cortisol due to negative emotions can have detrimental effects on our wellbeing. It can impact the immune system, raise blood pressure, and even contribute to weight gain. Therefore, it’s important to manage stress and cultivate positive emotions to support overall health and well-being.
Sarah’s journey to finding love was not an easy one. So together, we worked on those things that were in her control using the 3BE method, which is all about the power of intentional visualisation and positive thinking using encouraging self-talk, acting as if what you desire is already present and changing lifestyle habits.
The impact of your thoughts on your emotions and hormones cannot be understated. When you engage in positive self-talk and visualisation, you can activate the release of neurotransmitters (chemical substances that transmit signals between nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain and other parts of the nervous system). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite, contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, reward, and pleasure, influencing our motivation, goal-directed behaviour, and enjoyment of certain activities. Positive visualisation and affirmations can stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine and other feel-good hormones like oxytocin, which helps you feel connected to others and fosters feelings of love and trust. This can improve your overall mood and increase your resilience to stress.
As Sarah’s confidence grew with each session, using the 3BE method, she began to feel more empowered and began to trust her decisions. Her relationship with food improved as she convinced herself to try new foods with enthusiasm when she went out in public to eat in restaurants. Over time, the power of positive emotions like enthusiasm and joy fuelled her desire to find love.
Sarah made decisions that felt more aligned with her true self her instincts. This meant she didn’t feel bad about what she was experiencing at the time of her decision-making. For instance, Sarah listened to the voice in her mind when she chose to experiment with different foods and eat in public places without the fear of being judged. She trusted herself to choose wisely and not turn to substitute drinks such as wine to suppress her nerves.
Sarah’s journey was not without challenges. Initially, she had doubts, anxiety, and fears about dating again, but her friend introduced her to someone special and she trusted her instincts. Sarah and her date hit it off, and they soon became best friends. They were in sync, not just with each other, but with themselves. Sarah’s newfound balance between her mind, heart, and gut allowed her to find happiness.
Belynder Walia is the author of Fix Me: How to Manage Anxiety and Take Control of Your Life
Porges, S. W. (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology, 32(4), 301–318.
Purves, D., Augustine, G. J., Fitzpatrick, D., et al. (2001). Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.